Sunday, May 17, 2009

What’s In a Synopsis?

Copyright © 2009, Steven E. Houchin

I had the privilege this year to be a first-level judge in the 2009 Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest. It was an interesting experience that I enjoyed. I saw my own start at writing five years ago in the obviously newbie manuscripts I read, and liked some of the clever plot ideas. I can’t detail them here since they’re confidential, but a few had great potential.

One thing was clear to me: the idea of a synopsis is sorely misunderstood. I’ve also run into this in a weekly writer’s workshop I attend. For the contest, it didn’t help that the PNWA posted an online document “Writing a Synopsis”, which was truly misleading. It gave the impression that a synopsis should be written in structured segments: here is the protagonist and antagonist; this is their motivation; this is the theme; here is a sentence about the plot. That doesn’t make a synopsis; those are the elements that make up a query letter to an agent/editor - a completely different thing.

I won the PNWA contest two years ago with a synopsis that simply and concisely told the story, from start to end, in two pages. In doing so, the characters and their motivations were revealed naturally within the story. That should be true whether the synopsis is 80 words or 800. Write it like the inside of a book jacket, except tell the whole story - even the surprise ending.

On the subject of word count, a local panel of agents/editors recently claimed they wanted no more than a 50-word synopsis in a query letter. They have no time for anything longer. Holy cow! I tried that with one of my books, and only got to 80. Anything less, and I don’t think the agent would understand what’s compelling about the story. So, then, what about all those agents out there who advertise that they want a query letter, a one-page synopsis, and the first 50 manuscript pages? I’ve read on some blogs that agents are getting cynical about the perfectly crafted query letters they receive because the art of querying is being “workshopped” everywhere. Poor writers are learning how to write great queries. The only way to know what is any good is to read some of the manuscript itself, and judge if a more substantial synopsis makes sense.

I wrote an article recently about proper synopsis writing for a newsletter I edit. Here are the main points:
1. Write it in present tense, even if your story is in past tense (as most are). Write, “Gretchen sees the ghost float in”, not, “Gretchen saw the ghost float in”.
2. Tell the whole story. A synopsis is not a teaser, as is the case for what you often read on a book jacket or in a book review. Give the start, middle, and ending. Subplots are usually left out.
3. Be concise. You don’t have to include everything, just the important points. An agent may specify an interest in a one-page (or less) book synopsis only. Brevity is beautiful. But, getting across the main plot points is crucial. And, you still need to hook your reader. A book jacket or book review description can be a good example of conciseness.
4. For a whole book/story synopsis, include the main characters and their motivations. Minor characters are unnamed or left out. The first time you use a character’s name, put it in all uppercase.

And ... no dialog. Just tell what happens, and make it compelling to read. You may make an exception for a just couple of spoken words, but normally there is no dialog at all.

So, what does an agent/editor really want to see? The answer seems to be “it depends”. Follow whatever guidelines that person/organization posts. If in doubt, I suppose a simple, one-page query can’t go wrong.